School Nutrition chats with Janey Thornton and Katie Wilson- SNA luminaries who rose from local districts to positions of national influence. A wise sage once noted that each mighty oak has its roots in the humble acorn. It's an adage that is particularly apt in describing two SNA past presidents who have risen from applying their innovative spirit and passionate dedication to the children of their individual communities to positions of national influence. Janey Thornton, PhD, SNS, is deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She served as the 2006-07 SNA President, while directing the school nutrition program at Hardin County Schools in Elizabethtown, Ky. Katie Wilson, PhD, SNS, is executive director of the National Food Service Management Institute. She served as SNA President in 2008-09, while directing the school nutrition operation at Onalaska School District, in Onalaska, Wis. Given the regulatory mandate of such recent actions as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (not to mention the proposed meal pattern rules), it's not surprising that both Thornton and Wilson have go-go-go travel and meeting schedules. What is surprising is that these superwomen found time in their unenviable calendars to speak to School Nutrition about their respective "local kids make good" stories. Reflecting both on their current positions-and the current state of school nutrition-they are candid in sharing surprises and opportunities, as well as challenges and frustrations. Plus, they offer some important advice to their peers working in schools and districts across the country. SN: Let's begin with some fundamentals. In just a few sentences, how would you describe your overall job? JANEY: Our mission area at Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services is oversight of all of USDA's nutrition assistance programs, which serve as the nutrition safety net for the American people. And I don't know that we've had another time in history that these programs have been in as much need as they have the last several years. As deputy undersecretary, much of my job is about providing advocacy and building awareness-about the programs and about the great things that are going on through USDA. And lately, my job is also about alleviating stress. KATIE: As executive director of NFSMI, it is my responsibility to ensure that we continue to meet the needs and expectations of our stakeholders and funders in the areas of child nutrition research, curriculum development and training. It is my role to see the national picture as to how we can be efficient and yet effective reaching our customers throughout the country. SN: Both of you have served as school nutrition directors for small- to medium-size school districts. How have you been able to apply that experience in these national-level positions? JANEY: I am considered the "local" voice at FNS. When I'm here in D.C., I'm a conduit-not just for school nutrition programs, but sometimes even for the education community at the state and local level. I tease people and tell them that I'm the connection to the "real" world. KATIE: As a district director, I learned to enhance my management skills, including managing personnel, as well as relying on my organizational skills. And I was constantly required to meet deadlines, stick to a budget, report to stakeholders and be accountable. SN: You've also both served as president of SNA. What kinds of skills and experiences from that period have you brought to your current roles? KATIE: There are many skills I sharpened as SNA president that I can apply today. That includes the ability to speak to large groups, my leadership skills, my strategic planning skills, the ability to see the national picture and my numerous contacts. These all have helped me to begin to move the Institute forward in a new direction. JANEY: Being SNA president was another important step in learning to look at the big picture. [This starts at the national committee level, where] we constantly are looking at what is best for the entire country and not just our individual districts and states. It can be a challenge to take yourself to that kind of mindset. Also, while president, I had the opportunity to travel extensively, which has really helped me in this job. Because I wasn't just going to a HealthierUS School Gold-type of district; I had the opportunity to see and hear firsthand the many challenges that operators face. So, there are times when I have been at meetings discussing some change or initiative that sounds great in theory, but that I can point out the way it would impact schools, and inevitably others will say, "I hadn't thought of that." Of course, it's also helpful that, as SNA president, I learned the value of a little diplomacy, rather than throwing a temper tantrum and insisting it "just won't work." SN: You each have had some time to make an impact in your new jobs. What do you count among your proudest achievements? JANEY: [For me, it was] when President Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. We finally got that legislation through-which had been such a priority even back when I was SNA president! To have the opportunity to be on this end when it got through? That was really exciting. I'm also proud that I am in this position and able to speak with that local voice. Maybe some of my colleagues are ready to roll their eyes, thinking, "Here she goes again," but that's part of the reason I'm here. KATIE: [For me, it's] trying to move the Institute in a new direction so that it becomes the National Food Service Management Institute, with customer service as its focus. We have a new, vibrant, well-rounded strategic plan that includes input from all our employees, as well as from other stakeholders. SN: And how about some of your biggest frustrations? KATIE: The pace at which things change. We all know what needs to be done, but everyone has so much personal "turf." Caring about the wellness level of children does not take rocket science; it simply takes a collaboration of people who are willing to put the wellness of children before their own agendas. If we could keep this top of mind, school meals would be a much simpler, cost-effective way to enhance education opportunities for our children. JANEY: Without a doubt, it's not being able to talk about the final meal pattern regulation [at this time], especially when I know that if I could talk, I could put so many people's minds at ease. All I can say is that we read the comments-and we listened. The new meal pattern will be reflective of those comments, keeping in mind what is best for kids and knowing what can be done, because it's already being done in districts around the country. I'm glad that more people are finally seeing school meals as nutrition programs, and not just a joke in so many comedy acts. But when there are so-called experts who get media attention and don't tell the whole story about school nutrition? That's unbelievably frustrating. I don't think they realize how much damage they can do here in D.C. And there's one more challenge to working at USDA: The acronyms! People do not speak in normal sentences within the "Beltway." It's ridiculous. SN: What have you learned or experienced so far that has surprised you-or that you think would surprise our readers? KATIE: I don't think too much surprises me anymore. It seems there is always something in this field, and you just learn to jump through the next hoop. JANEY: There are two things that stand out to me. The first was discovering how differently the law is interpreted from state to state. You always think the way you do it in your state is the way it's done everywhere, right? But I'm finding there are lots of different interpretations of "common" things. One example is calculating ADP (average daily participation). In Kentucky, we did it by taking the number of children who are in school on a particular day, but some states do it by total enrollment. But what if there are students who are only there part of the day, like kindergartners or students in vocational programs or seniors? That can really skew the picture-and to the negative. We've also realized that the definition of "offer versus serve" differs across the country. On a more positive note, I've really been pleasantly surprised to learn just how committed and dedicated everyone is at USDA-from the Secretary on down. I know that it's easy at the local school district level to think negatively about so-called bureaucrats, but you really don't Know the hours and hours and hours of time that go into any decision, and the commitment all these people have to our programs! It's worlds away from the stereotype of the government worker. I could get teary just thinking about some of the meetings that I've been to, and hearing comments from Secretary Vilsack reminding us that he is not our boss; our boss is the American people. And another "ah-ha" moment for me was learning how staff at the federal level expect that those of us working in local school nutrition operations also must work very closely with SNAP and WIC and other nutrition assistance programs. But we school nutrition professionals know there's actually very little interaction. Of course, if there was more, all our programs might be that much more efficient. SN: How are you working together on projects? KATIE: I think that having two people from the school nutrition profession who are in the positions that we are in is absolutely perfect for working to change the system. Janey and I both understand the realities and challenges of child nutrition programs. We can brainstorm ideas and spearhead initiatives that are in the right direction. We all know that some rules and regulations sound great [on paper], until you actually try to put them in action. JANEY: Many people don't realize that NFSMI is a program of USDA. So the opportunity right now is phenomenal to get a mindset embedded about the collaborative opportunities between NFSMI and USDA-and SNA, which is so critical to the role of professionalism. SNA is the voice, the voice of individual members, operators speaking out about being on the front lines running these programs. USDA is the government, setting policy and standards for effective program management. NFSMI is USDA's primary training arm to help us provide education to help implement the policy and standards. We each have a role to play, but we can complement each other so well by leveraging our unique strengths and standing up for one another, like a family. SN: What are some of the top goals that you believe you can achieve- individually, together and with SNA? JANEY: SNA can continue to push, push, push its individual members to realize that they have a voice-and that their voice matters and their voice counts. When we all pull together, I don't think there is a thing that we can't accomplish. I hope that we can continue to raise the bar of professionalism, making sure that everyone realizes that whether they have a GED or a PhD, they are each part of a profession that does great work and makes a huge difference in the life of the kids who will be our future. I also have been working hard to improve our image in the media-and I tell reporters, "You have done a great job pointing out what we need to do, but you also have an obligation to America's people, as programs improve, to start reporting those achievements, too." KATIE: One of the projects on my radar screen is to have regional training sites throughout the seven USDA regions, with qualified trainers who are ready to go. We need to get school districts to understand that trained school nutrition employees are the answer to successful programs. We can enact all the guidelines we want, but it makes no sense to expect employees with no training to execute and implement those rules. SN: There are other articles in this issue of School Nutrition that are intended to help readers improve their personal understanding of some key nutrition issues. What are some of the important nutrition lessons that you have learned, and why is it important for school nutrition professionals at all levels to work to improve their understanding of such issues? KATIE: One of the most important lessons I've learned about nutrition concepts is that "If it is too good to be true-it isn't true." Everyone who eats seems to think they can write a book about nutrition. It's so frustrating to trudge through the junk information that is out there. Millions of dollars are spent every year for miracle cures. Just two concepts need to be understood: 1. Eat from a rainbow of colors on your plate and 2. What you put in, you must "wear" off through activity. There's nothing complicated about any of that! If we truly are going to be experts in nutrition or try to convince children to care about nutrition, we have to start caring about it ourselves. We must change our image through changes in our behaviors and in educating ourselves. It's the best way to start walking the talk. JANEY: There's such an emphasis on perceptions of "good" and "bad" foods. A great example is pizza. You can have extremely healthy pizzas that are demonized because there are also less-nutritious pizzas available, too. It's not the food, but what that item is comprised of. Just because a meal is made from scratch does not mean that it is healthy. And just because it is processed does not mean it is unhealthy. It's important to know what you're talking about and what information to look for. SN: How would you define the top public relations challenges to the school nutrition profession from your side of the fence today? Are there other top challenges that you now see from a different vantage point? KATIE: Everyone seems to think they can "fix" school lunch-but school lunch doesn't need fixing, especially not by people who have no idea how the program operates. School meal programs need the resources to do the job well, and that has Less to do with income data and more to do with nutrition. It's absurd to run a nutrition program that is based on collecting income data; it makes no sense. JANEY: We have to help parents understand that as we push for healthier meals at school, if kids don't have them at home and at restaurants, we're not going to see great societal changes. We also have to help some parents understand that it is okay to say "no" to a child; some young parents seem to think they might be committing child abuse if they don't let kids have what they want when they want it. But overall, our top public relations challenge is the ongoing stigma of school meals. It's so frustrating, because I've been blown away by the great things that are going on out there in school after school. We need a better way to share these stories and get the positive story out in front of the negativity. SN: You both made big, personal shifts to take these positions. How have you navigated those transitions? JANEY: The biggest challenge is being away from family; it's the first time in my life that I've lived outside of Kentucky and away from my entire family-siblings, cousins, everyone. It's also been a challenge to go from living on a farm, where I garden and dig in the dirt, to living in a city. Still, it's exciting, and it does help that the job is almost 24/7 and it does consume your life! It makes me appreciate home and family even more-and then I make the best of the time that I do have with them. KATIE: Moving to the South and Mississippi after spending my life in Wisconsin was very difficult. The food and culture are very different, and I certainly miss my family and close friends. Also, being in this position means I have to be very careful about maintaining a balance of where I go and what I do-I really don't have the personal choices I used to have. Now it is all about the mission of NFSMI and what is best for NFSMI. SN: What are one or two takeaways that you want School Nutrition readers to know? JANEY: It's so important for school nutrition professionals and our allies to know that at USDA, everyone's first and foremost priority is to have successful local-level programs. We don't sit here and try to make things more difficult just to create another review or regulation. The goal is to reach the most kids that we can serve in the best and most efficient way. I also want your readers to know that it's critical that they make it a priority to share their great ideas and their achievements- and their failures, too. Even when you share what didn't work, you are giving someone else the opportunity to learn from your mistake, twisting and fixing it to find success. Call up the district next door and get together for lunch or coffee. Or, get out to your state or national conferences and talk to others. KATIE: If you are given the opportunity to take on a leadership role in the field of child nutrition, do not turn it down! We need everyone to make this right; your expertise and leadership skills are crucial to our nation's children. Yes, when you take on a leadership role, you are giving up some of your personal life. But the outcome is for the common good. It's exhausting and rewarding at the same time. Never look back-always look forward to what you can do to help.
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